Report on Livestream 3: OA Beyond APCs International Symposium, November 17-18, 2016

oa-symposium-logoSee my previous two reports on the livestream from the “Envisioning a World Beyond APCs/BPCs” international symposium held November 17-18, 2016 at the University of Kansas here and here. (You can view recordings of the livestream on the KU MediaHub here and here.)

The second hour of the livestream involved feedback from designated responders to the brief presentations of the panelists and questions from the online audience, which spurred an engaging conversation on a variety of issues that play into the stated intention of the symposium to “consider models that are available for achieving an expansive, inclusive, and balanced global ecosystem for open publishing.”

The threads in the conversation I found most interesting related to how mission-driven values (which should be seen as compatible with the intentions of open scholarly communication) are under increasing pressure from market-driven institutional competition, and questions surrounding who controls and legitimizes scholarship, both for academic advancement at the local level and visibility and recognition at the global level. On this last point, it was especially instructive for me as an academic from the United States to have my presuppositions challenged by listening to voices from Africa and Latin America. The assembled group also grappled a bit with how the rise of nationalism might impact the development of a global open scholarly publishing system. Following are just a few excerpts from the conversation.

In responding to comments raised regarding the need for other kinds of accessibility (e.g., providing translations, disability access, etc.) as well as support for other kinds of scholarly reporting beyond the journal article, Martin Eve, from the Open Library of Humanities reminded us about the challenges of costs, just renumeration for labor performed, and the current problems of resource distribution:

We have utopian potential in the digital space to create new forms that have new types of scholarship in them, and new reaches of accessibility for different audiences. The challenge is that all of those come with commensurate labor demands. And if we’re going to see this as a social justice issue, we also have to think about people being paid. Switching to a wholly volunteerist system, and asking people to take on more and more labor in order to support those forms—it might be the lesser of two evils compared to not allowing people to read it, but it’s not something we should dismiss. It’s a kind of balance between the supposed abundance and utopian nature of the digital space, and the scarcity of our renumeration for forms of labor. Balancing those out is an important challenge if we’re going to have new forms, if we’re going to think beyond the PDF and beyond conventional audiences. … You have enormous entities who are making a lot of money out of scholarly communications with vast profit margins. They’re held up as what we want to do away with. On the other hand, you’ve got university presses who are one lawsuit away from bankruptcy. It seems to me that the mission-driven presses rarely are the one’s doing well here. We have to think about a reallocation of resources across the spectrum. It’s been pointed out that we have enough resources within the system to do it. But like William Gibson’s future, they’re just not evenly distributed.

Williams Nwagwu, Director of Documentation and Information Centre, CODESRIA (The Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa) raised the issue of access to African research outside of Africa as it is tied to a “political economy of knowledge,” where African scholars feel pressured to seek legitimacy outside of Africa in order to gain visibility in the dominant Western/Global North scholarly communication system:

The question of access is a very serious one in Africa, where often we’re angered by the illusion that there is no research going on in Africa. Why is this so? Because what we do in Africa is not accessible outside. In Africa, we have an avalanche of knowledge produced elsewhere that enters into Africa to submerge and swallow up our local capacity. What CODESRIA has done in the last year is to initiate an African citation index, to enable African research which has never gone outside of Africa to be properly organized in a source where people can access it. [But there is also the issue of] the political economy of knowledge where it does appear that knowledge produced in Africa must be weighed against “some criteria,” and it is only those that pass “some criteria” that find a venue in journals that are published elsewhere. The others are never referred to.

[And so,] I have for quite some years grappled with this issue of visibility. It is not a global science policy issue. It’s a Latin American issue. It’s an African issue. Why do I have to struggle to be visible in America and England? It’s an insult to my intelligence, because I have applied my scholarship across the world. I have distinction. I think we have to revisit this language of visibility. African scholars should work towards assuring utility, not visibility. … In the open access era whatever you publish wherever can be seen wherever. The way I see it, [the problem is related to] an enduring colonial heritage. It’s an issue that has to do with decolonialization of knowledge. It’s an issue that has to do with the political economy of knowledge. Because whoever has your knowledge has you in his or her pocket.

The best of science in Africa—[and I know because I am an indexer]—is not in Africa, it’s elsewhere. Because there is a wrong emphasis on visibility. … We have to balance between the purpose of doing research, which is utility, and what is actually happening vis-a-vis African scholars who are struggling to publish abroad [for the sake of visibility within this dominant system of scholarly communication].

International journals with high visibility (measured by impact factor) tend to be owned by publishers in the Global North. Jean-Claude Guedon, from the University of Montreal contends that pressure to publish in these journals can effectively set the research agenda for scientists and scholars, especially in the Global South:

When we evaluate the quality of scholarship by the place where it appears rather than by its intrinsic intellectual value I think we make a very bad mistake. But it goes even beyond that. When you are being pushed by your university to publish in so-called international journals, [we need to understand that] the journal itself is in competition with other journals, thanks to the impact factor, because it wants to take market share in the market of ideas. [That] journal favors certain types of questions at certain times of its history. That’s part of its strategy to establish its identity. So, the person in Africa or Latin America that has to publish in an international journal, has to submit an article that is going to be of some interest to that journal. … The scholar may prefer to do the work that will go in the direction of getting into that journal rather than following questions that may be of more direct and immediate interest to him or her [or that address the problems originating in his or her country]. The result is that there is competition between journals, and the judgment through journals ends up acting like a latent global science policy. Think about why there are so many neglected problems—some of them very pressing. I constantly remind people that the Zika virus was identified in 1947, and we still don’t know anything about it. Why? We have to think about what the perversion of the system does. It extracts intellectual power out of relatively poor countries … and it forces a kind of competition. This doesn’t help the great conversation of science and scholarship.


Posted in Commercial Publishing, Economics & Business Models, Libraries & OA, Open Access, Open Access Journals, Open Access Monographs

Report on Livestream 2: OA Beyond APCs International Symposium, November 17-18, 2016

oa-symposium-logoAlthough the subscription-based business model is still dominant in academic journals publishing, open access is finding its way into the mainstream. Most of the large journal publishers that have adopted open access, however, utilize article processing charges (APCs) as their revenue generating mechanism. This model shifts payments from the consumer side to the producer side—from the reader to the author. And while publishers have made moves to assure that new journals created are open access, most existing journals remain subscription-based, offering, at best, authors the option to pay an APC to designate their published articles as open access (so-called hybrid open access).

As was mentioned in the previous post, a white paper published in April 2015 by the Max Planck Digital Library sought to demonstrate that there is enough money in the current global academic publishing system (coming largely from library resource acquisitions budgets) to fund the complete transformation of all journals to open access. The white paper’s authors contend that this massive transformation could be accomplished if current subscription expenditures were immediately repurposed to pay for APCs.

If the goal of open access is the removal of barriers so that readers can gain access to all published scholarly communication then this disruptive proposal would seem a reasonable solution. And yet, the planners and participants of the international symposium “Envisioning a World Beyond APCs/BPCs” held on November 17-18, 2016 at the University of Kansas, were not satisfied.

What is the problem with the APC business model for achieving universal open access such that the symposium planners wanted us to envision moving beyond them? If not APCs, what other viable models might be available to us for achieving universal open access? My intent in this follow-up post is not simply to transcribe the livestream (you can view video recordings on the KU MediaHub here and here) but to highlight some of the more compelling insights shared, especially as they bear on scholarly communication in religious studies and theology.

The first of eighteen panelists, Juan Pablo Alperin from Simon Fraser University and the Public Knowledge Project, articulated a fundamental critique of the APC model:

A world in which there are barriers to access to knowledge is problematic. But a world that provides that access through article processing charges does so by changing the problem of exclusion from a problem of access to read to a problem of access to write, in particular, for parts of the world that have less resources available to them, and from institutions and from people working from fields in which there aren’t abundant resources to pay article processing charges. … A world in which [scholars] cannot participate to write is even worse than a world where they cannot access to read. … We need to take back ownership of our publications. I think the way we solve this problem is by having scholarly publishing come back to being scholar led and scholar owned. I think we can take some lessons from the platform cooperativism movement, in which those benefits that online platforms give us come back to the community of stakeholders.

The traditional subscription model has tended to shield scholarly authors from the economics of their publication activity. Arguably, they should become better informed about the costs. But APC sticker-shock, especially in disciplines without large budgets or lucrative grant funding—the humanities in general, and religious studies and theology in particular—may effectively inhibit research output, creating a different form of exclusion. The idea that a scholar should have to pay to have their work published (again, notwithstanding the fact that someone else, typically the library, has been paying via subscriptions) is an affront to longstanding traditions of scholarly communication. A related consequence of APCs is that they dis-incentivize scholars from publishing in open access venues (a point raised by another panelist). As Peter Suber has observed, there is a persistent misunderstanding among reluctant scholars when they erroneously equate the term Gold Open Access—simply the label applied to open access journals—with the imposition of APCs. As it happens, a majority of Gold Open Access journals do not fund themselves through the use of APCs.

Alperin responded to the suggestion that APC waivers could address the inability to pay. Reading between the lines when he noted that Latin America has long had a robust open access scholarly communication system that does not charge APCs (a point echoed by a couple other panelists), I sensed he would call waivers from Western/Global North publishers a form of paternalism designed to keep the dominant system in place.

Ivy Anderson, Director of Collection Development at the California Digital Library, highlighted a significant barrier to open access adoption, at least in the West/Global North:

We know that authors at primarily Western—North American and European—institutions are largely publishing in mainstream journals that dominate Western publishing, and they have not abandoned those journals in large numbers. Open access ranks quite low in author priorities. In fact, as Carol Tenopir has put it in the University of California’s Pay It Forward study, reputation-building within a discipline is by far the most important priority for academic authors. … The two big gap questions for those of us who want to take back academic journal publishing, or to reconstruct journal publishing in a radical new way, are: If we build it will they come? Or put differently, What are the conditions that we need to put in place in order to encourage our scholars to make this transition? … With respect to other stakeholders such as societies, we often talk about publishers in a very monolithic way. I think there is much more that we could do to engage with societies about what it would take for [them] to transition their journals [to open access].

Scholars trade in reputation, and they commonly seek to enhance their reputations and academic careers by affiliating their research writing with prestigious journals and venerable publishing houses. As later panelists noted, this quest to build reputation is complicated by a system of academic advancement (tenure and promotion) that too often shorthands the evaluation of scholarly research quality by assessing where that research gets published. We will continue to have difficulty encouraging scholars to publish in open access venues until we can convince institutions and academic advancement committees—which are staffed by scholarly colleagues—to legitimize a wider range of venues for research reporting, and also to focus their assessment of research quality on the research itself. Noting above the problem of incentivizing open access as a priority among scholars, as the scholarly reputation economy is currently constructed—which includes editing and peer review provided by colleagues as a professional courtesy—publishers, too, are not strongly motivated to mess too much with an arrangement that has been so profitable to them.

Anderson’s comment about engaging with societies is especially interesting. As a librarian, I have watched in recent years (and wrote about it earlier here) as the operations of many well-respected and reasonably priced religion and theological society journals have been sold to commercial publishers. The all too common result of these transactions is significantly higher subscription rates, which puts added pressure on accessibility. What if we had been able to intervene with a compelling case to have these societies convert their journals to open access instead of going the commercial route?

Among the reasons societies often give for transferring their journal operations to commercial publishers is that they struggle with assembling the necessary voluntary labor. Too, they recognize the benefits of a range of professional services that publishers provide. These points were highlighted by panelist Martin Eve, from the University of London, Birkbeck and the Open Library of Humanities (an open access publishing platform that does not charge APCs):

In removing APCs, how do we make sure that we keep the visibility of labor? There are things we want doing from publishers—typesetting, copy editing, proof reading, digital preservation, platform maintenance, etc. If you’re not paying for those things directly as an author in a service model, how do we make sure that that labor is still valued and get those things that are important?

We must of course take seriously that the costs of publishing do not disappear with open access. But can we recover the costs of labor and the provision of professional publishing services by other means? One compelling case we might make to scholars, academic institutions, and scholarly societies to set this up is to remind them of their fundamental purpose and mission—the creation and dissemination of knowledge leading to the growth of understanding of some topic, or directed toward the solution of some problem for the common good.

Arianna Becerril Garcia, Director of Technology and Innovation for Redalyc (Network of Scientific Journals of Latin America and the Caribbean, Spain and Portugal) wondered about the curious way scholarly communication has developed in the Global North:

Science produced and published in Latin America has always been open access. Open access has been the natural way in which our scientific communication system works. Journals have been supported by universities and research institutions. The majority of them, about 90%, including the most prestigious, are published by public universities. … The tradition of scholarly publishing has not been outsourced to commercial publishers, nor ever supported by charging authors. So, I would really like to understand how the Global North could let some companies grow in such a way that universities cannot control the scholarly publishing enterprise. I wonder if there is any publishing tradition inside universities of the Global North that could have been lost. In that case, could it be recovered?

Academic institutions and societies in the Global North have and continue to outsource their scholarly publishing to “some companies,” effectively losing control of the enterprise and the traditions that gave it birth. Can these traditions be recovered within and among the community of scholars? This is an echo of what Juan Pablo Alperin said above about scholars taking back the leadership and ownership of their publications.

A similar theme was presented by panelist Jean-Claude Guedon from the University of Montreal, who wrote in his participant bio:

I support OA [open access] for areas of knowledge sometimes neglected by OA communities: the humanities, the social sciences, open access in developing and emerging nations. I am concerned by the ability of a few large publishers to embrace OA while shaping it so as to preserve their economic privileges. I am concerned by the business model based on APCs: it can intensify cognitive injustice in the world, while easing the rise of pseudo-journals.

He continued this line of thinking in his livestream response:

We have to know how to shape open access. Open access is fundamentally about communication among scientists and scholars. … It is not a financial problem. It’s a communication problem. Humanity deals with reality by having organized a very lovely system of distributed intelligence based on communication. The priorities, therefore, are simple. Fit everything else into that imperative of communication first. So, in particular, let’s not immediately start by saying how do we make this durable, or as people prefer to say nowadays, sustainable. … Scientific research has never been sustainable. It’s been subsidized for the last four centuries. So why shouldn’t communication among scientists be subsidized as well?

In the human community of scholars, this “imperative of communication” manifests itself in a desire both to share the results of scholarly investigations and to have those investigations discovered and read by others. No scholar can be happy about barriers imposed on this communication process. In the print era, scholars were forced to accept certain barriers, not as a desire but as a practical problem of space, time, and the limitations implicit in the available technology. Publishers profited off the scarcity created by these limitations by providing and controlling the communication infrastructure—they owned the printing presses. In the digital/network era, publishers seek to maintain control by perpetuating an impression of scarcity by reinforcing subscriptions and pay-for-view paywalls on the reader side, or if pressured to adopt open access, by “shaping it so as to preserve their economic privileges.” By subsidizing scholarly communication, I don’t think Guedon has in mind having academic institutions and grant funders continue sending truckloads of cash in the form of APCs to publishers. I sense rather that he means institutions should invest in and support the development of a cooperative global digital infrastructure for end-to-end open scholarly communication as an integral part of the research process consistent with institutional missions.

There are numerous details to work out in constructing such an end-to-end communication infrastructure. That was a significant part of what the symposium was all about. But it was also important to hear Heather Joseph, Executive Director of SPARC remind us of the founding characteristic of the open access movement:

The open access movement has truly been, from the start, a social justice movement. A group of loosely organized individuals and organizations who have a well-articulated shared concern for changing a specific aspect of the status quo. As a movement, we have been working to correct imbalances in the fundamental global system of how we share knowledge, and how to promote open and equitable access to information in order to serve the public good.

I don’t mean this in a confessional sense, or even as some ego-free altruism. Debates among scholars of religion can become quite heated! But there is something congenial in my mind about affiliating the academic study of religion or theology with a model of scholarly communication rooted in social justice. As a practical matter, there is nothing gained by foreclosing on the widest possible dissemination of ideas. Meanwhile, an ethos of openness affirms that no one should be excluded by structural means from making a contribution to the enhancement of our understanding of those ideas.

Oops! I see this post is running long, and I haven’t yet touched on the second hour of the symposium livestream. I believe I will go ahead and push the “publish” button on this post, and then follow-up with my highlights from the second hour in a third report.

Posted in Commercial Publishing, Economics & Business Models, Libraries & OA, Open Access, Open Access Journals, Open Access Monographs

Report on Livestream 1: OA Beyond APCs International Symposium, November 17-18, 2016

The theme of last year’s Berlin 12 Conference (December 8-9, 2015),* was developed around a white paper published by the Max Planck Digital Library in April 2015 entitled “Disrupting the subscription journals’ business model for the necessary large-scale transformation to open access.” The paper argues that there is enough money in the current global academic publishing system—money supplied by library resource acquisitions budgets that pay for subscription-based journals—to fund a complete transformation of all journals to open access.

That sounds like good news, and transforming all journals to open access would certainly be a tremendous boon, at least to the degree that the white paper understands the goal of open access as removing “the scarcities and restrictions that have been artificially imposed by the toll-access system” on the reader side (p. 2). The paper proposes the massive conversion of “existing library acquisitions funds into a budget for publication services” (p. 2). In other words, libraries (and their supporting institutions) would understand that they are no longer paying for the published products of scholarly communication on behalf of their student, faculty, and researcher users. Rather, they are paying for the publishing production of scholarly communication, with the products themselves being accessible for free.

Maybe the authors of the white paper were only trying to demonstrate the viability of this disruptive business model as a proof of concept. But other than the massive shift of payments to the production side in the form of article processing charges (APCs), the white paper seems to assume that the structures of scholarly communication and the scholarly publishing industry itself, including, presumably, healthy commercial publisher profits, would remain largely undisrupted. Indeed, the paper seeks to reassure publishers “so that they themselves can adapt to the new business model with confidence in its financial sustainability for the future” (p. 11). Other than a passing vague reference to an expectation of “eventual stratification” (p. 2), the paper doesn’t address how shifting payments to the production side through the use of APCs could be made to work for scholars and researchers in disciplines, institutions, or regions of the world that are not well-resourced. Wouldn’t this simply create a new set of artificially imposed “scarcities and restrictions,” only this time on the author side?

Billed as “responding to and furthering discussions” from the 2015 Berlin 12 Conference, a group of international panelists and local responders from academia, publishing, libraries, and non-governmental organizations gathered for a two-day symposium at the University of Kansas, Lawrence, KS on November 17-18, 2016 to “envision a world beyond APCs/BPCs.” The purpose of the symposium, as articulated by moderator Kevin L. Smith, Dean of Libraries at the University of Kansas, was “to consider the models that are available for achieving an expansive, inclusive, and balanced global ecosystem for open publishing,” embodied in a fundamental question: “To what extent can a global academic community create an open access publishing system that is without cost to authors or readers? If this is possible, how? If it is not possible, what are the barriers?” (emphasis added) The implication of this stated purpose and question is that the symposium planners were not satisfied with the APC-only solution for achieving universal open access as proposed by the Max Planck Digital Library white paper. (I since located a report prepared for the Association of Research Libraries that indicates questions regarding the supposed benefits and universal applicability of APCs already began to be raised at the Berlin 12 Conference.)

Kevin L. Smith, Dean of Libraries at the University of Kansas

The symposium included a two-hour livestream on Thursday, November 17. In the first hour (link to recording), Kevin Smith asked the eighteen panelists to each take two minutes to respond to the above fundamental question by answering two sub-questions: 1) “What do you not know about open access publishing that would help us to create the future we envision?,” and 2) “What do our scholarly publishing communities still need to know or to do in order to develop this expansive, open, and balanced ecosystem for worldwide open access?” In the second hour of the livestream (link to recording), Smith invited local respondents to comment on what they heard in the first hour in order to spur an engaged conversation with the assembled participants and worldwide audience around the issues raised.

I commend the livestream recordings as worthwhile viewing. In a follow-up post I will highlight some of the panelist responses and discussion threads that might bear on scholarly communication in religious studies and theology.

*The first Berlin Conference held in October 2003, organized by the Max Planck Society and the European Cultural Heritage Online project, produced the Berlin Open Access Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities on October 22, 2003 along the lines of the Budapest Open Access Initiative (February 14, 2002) and the Bethesda Statement on Open Access Publishing (June 20, 2003).

Posted in Commercial Publishing, Economics & Business Models, Libraries & OA, Open Access, Open Access Journals, Open Access Monographs

Welcoming the new Journal of Open Humanities Data

Some details of a new journal, coming from Ubiquity Press in the UK but with an international editorial board. It looks to offer a major and distinctive option for scholars to document and promote the reuse of digitised texts and other research data.

Webstory: Peter Webster's blog

After some months in the making, I am delighted to be able to draw attention to the new Journal of Open Humanities Data. I’m particularly pleased to be a member of the editorial board.

Fully peer-reviewed, JOHD carries “publications describing humanities data or techniques with high potential for reuse.”

The journal accepts two kinds of papers:

“1. Metapapers, that describe humanities research objects with high reuse potential. This might include quantitative and qualitative data, software, algorithms, maps, simulations, ontologies etc. These are short (1000 word) highly structured narratives and must conform to the Metapaper template.

“2. Full length research papers that describe different methods used to create, process, evaluate, or curate humanities research objects. These are intended to be longer narratives (3,000 – 5,000 words) which give authors the ability to describe a research object and its creation in greater detail than a traditional publication.

For more detail…

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Blog hand-off: Some reflections before shifting to occasional contributor mode

Photo on 6-12-15 at 1.23 PM

Gary as viewed by his computer

I started Omega Alpha | Open Access late in 2011 in response to a troublesome trend I was witnessing in my library—an increasing number of longstanding, highly regarded, and reasonably priced not-for-profit society and institution theological and religious studies journals were being acquired by commercial publishers through partnership deals or outright acquisition. The often immediate consequence of this trend, which especially got my attention as a library administrator, was the dramatic increases in subscription pricing.

When I inquired with the new publishers about the price increases, I received replies such as:

  • The old subscription price did not reflect the true value of the journal.
  • The old subscription price did not cover the true costs of publication.
  • Society journals frequently rely on volunteer labor, which obscures many of the costs of publication. We obviously cannot run our business without accounting for all costs.
  • We add value to the journal by providing full-text searchability and the option of backfile archival access on our online publishing platform. This platform requires a significant investment in technical infrastructure, expertise, and ongoing maintenance.
  • Subscriptions to humanities journals, including these journals in theology and religious studies, are really very reasonable when compared to the cost of journals in other disciplines.

When I inquired with journal editors about their decision to enter into a partnership with a commercial publisher, I received replies such as:

  • This partnership gives us access to professional publisher services (proofreading, layout and typesetting, marketing, reviewer management, and subscription management), enhanced/global visibility, and the ability to leverage publisher name recognition.
  • The partnership brings in added revenues to support other society programming.
  • Publication (printing) and distribution (mailing) costs are always rising and we were finding it hard to keep up.
  • We lacked the technical expertise and/or infrastructure to take our journal online.
  • We could no longer afford our office staff, and it is difficult to attract the needed volunteer labor to sustain publication in-house.

It was hard to argue with the logic of this decision, at least from a business and operational perspective for journal and publisher. Still, that very pragmatism seemed to me to be at odds with the oft-stated and primary mission of a society or academic institution to support knowledge creation and dissemination through its journal. What of the relationship the journal was intended to facilitate with scholarly authors and readers for the advancement of ideas and productive conversations? Curiously, that relationship was not explicitly included in the lists above (though I am sure both publisher and editor would insist it was implied).

I always appreciated that there were costs associated with journal publication so I never begrudged paying reasonable subscription fees to help with cost recovery and journal sustainability. That I often had a physical artifact to place on the shelf was simply a consequence of scholarly communication in the print era. But for me a journal was always primarily a medium of communication, not a commodity in its own right. While not unsympathetic to the struggles of society and institution journal editors expressed above, the dramatic increases in subscription prices now in the hands of commercial publishers provoked a jarring realization that something wasn’t right.

I cannot recall when I was first introduced to the concept of open access as an alternative publishing/dissemination model for scholarly journals. (I believe my first systematic exposure was gained by reading John Willinsky’s The Access Principle (MIT Press, 2006).) But I do recall the moment when I began to really think about the viability of open access for the disciplines of theology and religious studies. It was after reading an article written by Kevin L. Smith in a 2009 issue of Theological Librarianship, an open access journal published by the American Theological Library Association (for which, incidentally, I currently serve as Columns Editor). The article is entitled “Open Access and Authors’ Rights Management: A Possibility for Theology?” (link to PDF). I engaged with that article in an early post on the blog. I would invite you to read that original post from December 2011.

One of the most significant take-aways from Smith’s article became formative in the life of this blog. He talked about “the task of building an open access culture” in theological and religious studies. This struck me as a profound idea, and this was my response in the post:

When I first read that phrase “open access culture,” I was instantly captivated by its significance. I want to thank Kevin Smith for giving me something powerful to hang the mission (the “task”) of this site upon. Embracing or promoting open access isn’t just a matter of pragmatics, techniques, or technologies. Open access is a way of approaching the creation and dissemination of information that involves certain attitudes and behavioral characteristics. As such, it truly is a culture, and one that takes further unique shape within the scholarly discipline where it manifests itself. Open access culture within the study of religion or theology may share certain applications and outcomes with chemistry, physics, or economics, but … it also integrates each discipline’s unique research traditions and values/commitments.

Most of Smith’s ideas are yet to be significantly realized now two and a half years since his article was published. But true and enduring cultural change takes time, even in the digital age. The accretions of print culture weigh especially heavy on the sensibilities of scholarship in the humanities and theology. It is a big job to build an alternative infrastructure to support a cultural shift like open access. But I’m optimistic, and through Omega Alpha, I’m here to help with the task.

If nothing else, the blog provided me with a conduit to learn more about open access and to try to stay abreast of developments in the larger field. It was particularly gratifying for me to speak with editors of new journals (like Religion & Gender, which launched at just about the time I was getting the blog started) and existing journals (sometimes for many years existing—like the Journal of Buddhist Ethics, which celebrated 20 years of publication in early 2014!) in theology and religious studies, and to make these efforts better known through the blog.

But although I enjoy writing, it is a hard process for me and takes a lot of time. I have a propensity for long-form writing and editing as I go. The pressure of the blogging environment while trying to build and sustain a reading community, staying on top of news, developments, etc. was taking some of the joy out of the process for me. More positively, I also saw the potential and relevance of expanding coverage of open access beyond just journals to include monographs, open access tools, digital collections, open scholarship, etc., but quickly felt overwhelmed addressing these topics as a solo exercise. At the beginning of this year, I enlisted the interest and aid of Dr. Peter Webster, an independent scholar of modern British Church History and a digital assets consultant from the UK, to join me as a partner. I first met and interviewed Peter a couple years ago in association with the Open Library of Humanities project.

I have very much appreciated having Peter on the team. But as it happens, at about the time Peter got started with the blog I was getting increasingly preoccupied with another project of a more personal nature to which I wanted to dedicate more time. I asked him if he would be willing to takeover the blog, and I would step back as an occasional contributor. Peter agreed.

Given his expertise and well-developed network, I look forward to the developments in open scholarship and communication that Peter will bring to the blog. Despite this change in leadership, I anticipate that Omega Alpha | Open Access will continue its commitment to participate in the task of building an open access culture in theology and religious studies.

Posted in Commercial Publishing, Open Access, Scholarly Associations, Scholarly Journals

New British Library metadata for theology and church history

Webstory: Peter Webster's blog

Less well-known that it should be is the British Library’s recent venture of making subsets of its collection metadata available for download and reuse on a Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication basis.

Of particular interest is a dataset extract from the British National Bibliography in March 2015 for theology, subdivided into monographs and serials. The BNB extends as far back as 1950, and my count suggests that there are some 119,000 entries in the monograph file, and 4233 for serials. This looks to be a incredibly rich resource for thinking about the discipline in the last few decades. My initial searches suggest that there is a great deal here for ecclesiastical history as well.

The files may be downloaded near the foot of this downloads page.

Update:  special care is required in the period before 1960, as there is a very large slump in numbers of monographs included between…

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Open Data, Open Standards and Open Source: field notes from the SeNeReKo project

[A guest post by Frederik Elwert, post-doctoral researcher at the Centre for Religious Studies at Ruhr-University in Bochum, Germany. He is to be found on Twitter @felwert ]

The Center for Religious Studies (CERES) at Ruhr-University Bochum is a great place to study religion, with a variety of scholars from different backgrounds contributing to interdisciplinary research projects. But despite its innovative research, it still inherits much of the conservatism of its constituent disciplines, Religious Studies, Theology, Indology, Islamic and Jewish Studies, and others. When we started with SeNeReKo, a small digital humanities project, in 2012, we got an opportunity to learn many new lessons on open scholarship.

I am glad to have the opportunity to share some of my ideas on this topic here on the OA-OA blog. I will not talk about Open Access, probably the last step in the research cycle, although colleagues of mine at CERES recently started collecting experiences with that as well, launching a small Open Access online journal called Entangled Religions last year. Instead, I will focus on the prerequisites of open research, which play an even greater role in the digital humanities: Open Data, Open Standards, and Open Source.

Open Data

SeNeReKo is short for the rather lengthy title “Semantic and social network analysis as a tool to study religious contact”. That title highlights the methodological focus of the project. In fact, when funding this project (along with 23 others), it was the German ministry of education and research’s intention to use previous years’ digitisation efforts as a starting point for advances in the analysis of existing collections. The data is there, now what to do with it? It was important for us not having to digitise sources ourselves, something we would not have been able to do within the project’s time frame. But we still learned a lot about the difference between “existing data” and “reusable data”.

There are plenty of religious sources available online. A plethora of websites allows one to read and query databases of religious texts. But terms of use differ a lot, if they are made explicit at all. This is striking, given that most of these texts are some hundreds (or thousands) of years old and should be seen as a common good. But in many cases, specific translations, editions or collections are restricted in access. But in order to re-use data, it is important to have full access to the data. This is a legal as well as a technical problem.

On the legal level, one must have the right to access, store and process data. Without being an expert in this area and without elaborating on differences between countries, this is often covered by academic freedom. In the case of digital projects more crucial, however, is the right to re-distribute: In their presentation of research results, digital projects are not limited to quoting small snippets of the text. They can also display a complete re-sampling of the original data, providing not only results of interpretation, but also tools for interpretation. This requires permission to present and thus to re-distribute the data. (Or only to provide a very limited “distant” view on the data that does not allow one to re-assemble the original text, like in Google’s ngram viewer.)

But there is also a technical challenge: In order to re-use data in innovative ways, one has to have access that goes beyond of what the search interfaces of the collection’s website allows. If we want to re-model religious texts as networks of meaning, then we need to have all the information the source edition provides in a machine-readable form.

In our case, we were particularly interested in the Buddhist Pali Canon and in Ancient Egyptian sources as two exemplary cases. For both, digital editions exist that are regularly used by scholars in the respective fields. The Pali Canon is available in the Chattha Sangayana edition. This edition has previously been sold on CD, but since some years, it is freely available online. More interestingly, the website makes the machine-readable source files available in an (albeit outdated) TEI-XML format. However, the Vipassana Research Institute that publishes this edition does not explicitly state under which terms the data are available. After contacting them, we found them to be very liberal and open, but the case shows the problem of missing licenses that make it difficult to re-use data, even if it is published with an implicit motivation to allow various use cases.

A collection of Ancient Egyptian texts is available from the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae project of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities. Their website provides quite sophisticated search options, translations, and links each word in the texts to the project’s dictionary. But the texts are available only through the interface the site provides. There is no way to download the underlying source data in a machine-readable format for further analyses. We found the Academy to be quite responsive to our requests, but it required lengthy negotiations with legal counsels involved on both sides until a data sharing contract was signed. As part of the contract, the Academy provided us with an XML export of their internal database, giving us access to all the information hidden behind the web interface.

For open scholarship to thrive, we need open data. In my opinion, especially large collections and editorial projects cannot regard their data as a treasure that must be protected. These institutions are rather infrastructure providers, they should allow others to use their data in creative ways in order to generate new insights. Open licenses, as they increasingly emerge for Open Access publications, are also needed for open data.

Open Standards

Even after receiving the raw data from the Academy, we noticed that having the data is not enough: You also have to be able to read them. Reading Old Egyptian was not the issue, since we have competent Egyptologists in the project. But reading a project-specific database schema invented some 20 years ago with all linguistic information encoded using numeric codes proved to be an issue. It took us almost two years of data archaeology to decipher the format, which was only possible with the extensive help of researchers from the Academy who were familiar with the encoding schema.

When we planned how to deal with these project-specific formats, we decided to convert all the files to a standard format before actually doing our analysis. This allowed us to work on a common format for both our corpora, instead of adapting our methods to the specifics of each corpus’ format. And additionally, this allowed us to develop our software in a way that it can be applied to other texts and languages beyond our project with no or only little adaptation.

Still, finding a common format in practice is not always easy. Often, there are no official standards, but rather a collection of de-facto standards, sometimes competing with each other. And using a standard file format does not automatically mean that data can be exchanged between projects and tools. The Pali Canon already was available in a TEI XML format, albeit in an outdated version that still required some work. So using TEI as the basis for converting our corpora seemed to be the obvious choice, also given its spread in the digital humanities context. But TEI can be seen as a family of formats rather than as a definite standard, with many alternative ways of encoding the same thing. So we learned that it is not only important to have a standard format, but also to agree upon how the standard should be interpreted. And this can hardly be achieved on a general level, but rather one needs to have a limited community of people who share some goals and who agree on a way to build compatible editions. The EpiDoc initiative is a good example for such a community. For the case of more linguistically than epigraphically interested Egyptologists, an initial core group gathered in 2013 in Liège. People from the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae, Berlin, the Ramsès project, Liège, the Rubensohn project, Berlin, and some others (including us) started to discuss different aspects of data interoperability. This discussion continues, so we hope to achieve a certain level of compatibility in the near future.

All this goes beyond the core work of our project. We could have used the data as they were, transform them according to our needs, and do our analyses. But the data transformation took such a great amount of time that we felt obliged to spare future researchers these hassles. In an ideal world of open scholarship, a project like ours could just access the data in a common format and re-use it without major modifications. Documentation is a large part of this, but also collaboration: Interoperability cannot be achieved by one party alone, it requires agreement between data providers and data consumers. In this light, open standards are not just a matter of technical specifications, but of building a community that actively engages in dialogue.

Open Source

In the context of the digital humanities, but also in other disciplines that apply quantitative methods, analyses often involve writing code. When developing new analytical methods, this requires to implement them in code. But even when applying existing methods to one’s material, this can be expressed in code: Instead of browsing the menus of a statistical application like SPSS, the same analyses can be performed using code-driven statistical environments like R—and even SPSS allows to run analyses programmatically as code rather than through its graphical user interface. Instead of analysing networks using the buttons that Gephi provides, one can also run network analyses from Python.

There are two aspects that I think are important when thinking about code in the context of open scholarship: sustainability and reproducibility. Regarding the first point, almost the same arguments apply as with open standards: Of course, it is a good thing to provide code that is produced in research projects under an open source license. But in order to really have a sustainable open source project, this also requires writing documentation and building a community. We are trying to achieve this at least to a certain extend with our software for text network analysis, but only time will tell if we succeed.

But I think it is still relevant that we post our code online. That way, we allow other researchers to reproduce the analyses we performed, and possibly find errors that we overlooked. Ideally, every article we publish would be accompanied by the code for the underlying analyses. Since we constantly refine our methods, we make it possible to jump back to the state of our code that drove the analysis for a specific paper (see this example for my paper at the DHLU2013 conference). Anybody who ever tried to reproduce statistical analyses following only a description of the process knows what difference it makes to actually be able to inspect the analysis step by step. But this also affects publication strategies: new publishing formats and platforms like GitHub and Notebook Viewer for analyses in Python or RPubs for analyses in R allow to publish reproducible articles that embed the code that drove analysis. But they are currently mainly used by a very technical audience and not integrated into general open access publishing models. Ideally, the publication of articles and the publication of code would be intertwined, allowing for open and reproducible scholarship.


Open Access is but one building block of open scholarship—albeit a very central one. In order to make scholarship fully open, other components of the research cycle should be open as well. This affects open data (like freely available editions of historical texts), open standards (like TEI for text encoding), and open source (for reproducible analyses). Much research in Religious Studies and Theology is textual scholarship, and it would benefit a lot from open access to its sources. Still, I feel that there is yet a lot to improve, both technically and culturally.

Our work in the SeNeReKo project brought us into contact with many of these questions that we had not dealt with before. It was an opportunity to learn, to assess what is already possible, and to contribute our share to improve the situation. There is still a lot we know that we can improve in our own scholarly practice, and we have not yet achieved the level of openness that we strive for. But our research would not have been possible without access to data, standardised ways to exchange data, and open source software. I believe there is much to gain for Religious Studies and Theology on the way to open scholarship.

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